Racism Against White People

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I had a pretty awesome Fourth, mainly because I spent the morning interviewing James McPherson for a forthcoming piece. I don't want to say too much more on that front, in prepping for the interview I went back over a lot of McPherson's work. This essay on how Southern intellectuals, in the run up to the war, began to argue that they were a different "race" than Northern whites is really fascinating.


In the basic conception of the proto-Confederates, Southerners were descendants of the Norman "race," hot-blooded, passionate and noble Cavaliers, while Northerners were descended from the servile Saxons. Here McPherson quotes from The Southern Literary Messenger:

The people of the Northern States are more immediately descended of the English Puritans [who] constituted as a class the common people of England . . and were descended of the ancient Britons and Saxons. ... The Southern States were settled and governed by ... persons belonging to ... that stock recognized as Cavaliers ... directly descended from the Norman Barons of William the Conqueror, a race distinguished in its earliest history for its warlike and fearless character, a race in all times since renowned for its gallantry, chivalry, honor, gentleness, and intellect. The Southern people come of that race.

More from McPherson:

The South's leading writer on political economy, James B. D. De Bow, subscribed to this Norman-Cavalier thesis and helped to popularize it in De Bow's Review. As the lower-South states seceded one after another during the winter of 1860-61, this influential journal carried several long articles justifying secession on the grounds of irreconcilable ethnic differences between Southern and Northern whites. "The Cavaliers, Jacobites, and Huguenots, who settled the South, naturally hate, contemn, and despise the Puritans who settled the North," proclaimed one of these articles. "The former are a master-race-the latter a slave race, the descendants of Saxon serfs." The South was now achieving its "independent destiny" by repudiating the failed experiment of civic nationalism that had foolishly tried in 1789 to "erect one nation out of two irreconcilable peoples."

The reference to "civic nationalism" is to an America united, not by a vision of "race," but by principles--government by the people being chief among them. 

It is tempting to look at these sorts of quotes and howl in laughter. But you have to remember what the world was in the mid-19th century. The United States of America was one of the few countries in the world actually attempting to implement a democracy. There were all sorts of doubts about what caliber of citizen was needed to make government by the people work. And it was commonly believed that intellectual and moral characteristics were tied to physical ones. It is not uncommon to read documents from that period complimenting someone for having, say, "an intelligent nose" or "a noble chin."

In that environment, the idea of race had to be really important--indeed the future of your country hinged on it. With that said, what I like about this article is it, again, points out the stupidity of using race as a broad classification to reveal abstract, and ill-defined, characteristics. Moreover, it shows that the idea of race in American life has never been a rock, but clay fashioned as the racists of every generation need it to be.

Here's a question for future study--Is there any relation between the mass casualties in the Civil War and this idea of ethnicity and "race" among white people? 

McPherson again:

Most of the derogatory terms used by Southern writers to describe the enemy carried ethnic overtones. The Yankees were likened to Goths and Vandals; they were "hordes of Northern Hessians," "as numerous as the swarms of barbarians which the frozen North sent from her loins to overrun the Roman Empire," or as "the hordes of Alaric and Attila." Even the word "Yankee" was an ethnic slur in the mouths of Southerners. An infantry captain from Texas instructed his wife back at home to teach their children "a bitter and unrelenting hatred to the Yankee race ... a vile and cursed race."

We know about the role of technology in the carnage, and the employment of outmoded strategy. But is there any relationship between this kind of racial dehumanization and the mass slaughter that followed?
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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